Life for Darfuri Refugees in Chad Still Desperate

Amnesty International researchers just completed a mission to Chad to investigate the growing number of Darfuri refugees there.  Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty Canada, has been documenting the mission:

Amnesty International delegation with Marie Larlem, Coordinator of the Association for the Promotion of Fundamental Liberties in Chad.

We left Chad [on Tuesday], with heavy hearts, a sense of regret that much of our work was curtailed because of insecurity, and a determination to intensify our efforts to bring safety back to eastern Chad.  And as always — after spending time at the frontlines of human rights struggle — we have also left with the inspiration of this country’s many courageous and ingenious human rights defenders well lodged in our hearts and minds.

When I was last in eastern Chad with an Amnesty team, in late 2006, safety and security was the overwhelming concern.  In the face of relentless Janjawid attacks from Darfur, people throughout the east were left to fend for themselves.  The Chadian military and police did not care enough to help. Their only preoccupation was fending off the efforts of armed opposition groups to topple the government.  There was no international force on the ground.  There was nothing.  And the cost was immense: thousands killed and injured, untold number of women raped, and hundreds of villages razed to the ground.

We called on the international community to respond.  And they did.  But more than a year later, with several thousand European and UN soldiers having passed through the region and with hundreds of international and Chadian police tasked with providing protection to refugees, displaced Chadians and humanitarian workers, eastern Chad is still a very dangerous place to be.  It is especially dangerous for women and girls who take major risks every day when they head far outside refugee camps and displacement sites in search of firewood, hay and water.

In 2006 we called on the international community to go to eastern Chad.  Now we will call on the international community to strengthen and improve the mission they have established.  And we will insist that the Chadian government itself play a more central role in protecting human rights in the region, including by finally ensuring that the lawlessness and impunity that plagues this country comes to an end.  There must be a concerted effort to bring to justice the people who are responsible for widespread human rights violations throughout eastern Chad and the rest of the country, including beating and raping women, killing and attacking humanitarian workers, and recruiting child soldiers.

We began that work towards the end of our mission.  We had meetings with senior French and US diplomats in N’Djamena, two countries whose influence here is considerable.  We began laying out recommendations for action: steps the international community needs to take, and steps that the government of Chad must be pressed to take.  We will refine our recommendations over the coming days as we pull together the findings of our research over the past two weeks.  No doubt there will be more work with members of the UN Security Council in New York.  And we will certainly want to make sure that governments hear the powerful worldwide voices of Amnesty International’s members, insisting that insecurity give way to justice in eastern Chad.

As we leave, yes, my heart is heavy.

But the heaviness is made much lighter by the great work underway here.  I had a chance to reconnect with several remarkable human rights defenders I had met and worked with during our May 2008 mission to N’Djamena.

Blaise, the tenacious journalist whose independent radio station, FM Liberté, had been forced to close last year, is back on the air covering issues that matter, issues of justice, fairness and equality.

Celine, whose irrepressible energy in working with marginalized women was matched only by the power of the motorcycle with which she roared into neighbourhoods across the city, is still at it even though she has had some worrying anonymous death threats.

And Marie, the head of the Association for the Promotion of Fundamental Liberties in Chad, who we had to meet in exile across the border in Cameroon last year because of threats she had received, is once again at her desk, overseeing a growing nationwide independent human rights organization.

And this trip has introduced us to so many more.

I will of course long recall Houada, the brave journalist taking to the airwaves to discuss violence against women.

And remember Isaak, the Darfuri refugee and schoolteacher who has once been abducted from his classroom by armed opposition groups but goes on because he knows how important it is to “feed the minds” of young refugee children.

And be humbled when I think of our driver, Ibrahim, whose first concern, after being held captive by armed bandits for 6 or 7 hours was to ask about the safety of the Amnesty team.

Alongside these men and women, and the many others working for change in Chad, we will push on.  There is no other option.

- Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada

Read more from the Amnesty International Chad mission blog >>

Amnesty Researchers On-the-Ground in Chad

Amnesty International researchers are currently on-the-ground in Chad investigating the growing numbers of refugees streaming across the border from Darfur.  Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty Canada, has been documenting the mission online.  Here is an excerpt from a podcast posted yesterday detailing the still desperate situation:

Darfuri refugee women and girls at Bredjing camp filling water containers.

Darfuri refugee women and girls at Bredjing camp filling water containers.

“They are there on their own.”

Those words have been haunting us all day.   We have now come further east from Abéché to Farchana.  Within perhaps a 30-40 kilometre semi-circle around Farchana there are 3 major refugee camps as well as 12 sites for displaced Chadians.  Farchana itself is not far from Chad’s border with Darfur.

Our intention today had been to travel to one of the sites for displaced Chadians in this region, Arkoum.  We want to make it to several IDP sites during our mission because we have certainly come to understand that their safety and well-being is extremely precarious.

It is a universal story.  Without any doubt refugees, including Darfuri refugees here in Chad, face considerable hardship, insecurity and violence.  The international community does, however, have a much clearer role and responsibility for their protection.  Not so with IDP’s, who remain, of course, citizens of the country, in this case Chad.  Here, as is so often the case around the world, Chadians displaced within their own country have only minimal protection.  Largely abandoned by their own government and not fully protected by the international community.  And of course, still very near to the terrible human rights violations that forced them from their homes in the first place.

It is so important that we get access to some of the sites, to see and hear first hand the challenges displaced Chadians face.   But while the refugee camps are all within fairly easy reach of the town of Farchana, our base, the sites for IDP’s are more remote and difficult to reach.  And because of growing security concerns in eastern Chad, in the wake of a rebel incursion far to the south of here in Goz Beida, the UN decided today to cancel plans for a convoy to Arkoum, which we would have been part of.  Instead we travelled to a nearby refugee camp, Bredjing, and spent the day working with Darfuri refugees.

A human rights monitor with the Association for the Promotion of Fundamental Rights in Chad who is usually based in Arkoum had intended to travel back out to the site with us today, but was obviously unable to do so.  His worry was palpable.  It was he who kept saying: “ils sont là; tous seuls” – they are there on their own.

It all comes down to security.  In the midst of insecurity, the full range of human rights teeters and collapses.  That of course has been the horrible reality in both eastern Chad and Darfur for the past five years.  Insecurity means killings and rape; homes destroyed and crops burned.  But it also means education, health, food and water supplies, and livelihoods are also turned inside out.

And it is still insecurity that reigns in eastern Chad.  When I was here with an Amnesty team in late 2006 the local population, thousands of whom had recently been chased from their homes in a brutal wave of attacks, felt completely abandoned.   The sad truth is that 2 ½ years later, even though international troops and police are now deployed here, displaced Chadians remain at terrible risk.

And whenever security concerns arise here, as they have again, they are the first to be cut off, the first to be abandoned.  In so many respects, the most vulnerable yet the least protected.  As our friend kept saying, they are on their own.  We must find a way to stand with them.

- Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada

To listen to the original podcast and read more about the mission to Chad, visit the Amnesty Canada Mission Blog.

Researching Allegations of War Crimes in Israel and Gaza

Following the outbreak of the recent conflict in Gaza and southern Israel on December 27, 2008 and then Israel’s ground invasion of Gaza on January 3, Amnesty International delegates traveled to the region on January 8. There, they began to research allegations of war crimes and others serious violations of international law by Israel, Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups.

This video is about the preliminary findings of our fact-finding team in Gaza.

On the ground in Gaza

An Amnesty International delegation recently entered Gaza shortly before Israeli attacks ended to document the true scale of devastation wrought on civilians.  Amnesty researcher Donatella Rovera has been keeping a dairy of their findings.  Here is a excerpt from an entry she posted earlier this week to Livewire:

Today, Tuesday, it seemed as though Gaza was beginning to draw a collective breath after the shock of the past three weeks of Israeli bombardments. The streets, previously deserted, filled up again and tens of thousands of people who had fled their homes for fear of Israeli attacks began returning to them. But thousands have no homes to which to return because so many were destroyed by Israeli forces.

In Gaza City’s Zaitoun neighbourhood, where scores of homes were flattened by Israeli air strikes and bulldozers women and children were rummaging through the rubble of their homes, trying to recover the little that could be salvaged.

At a mourning tent amidst the rubble the surviving member of the Sammouni family received condolences and recited prayers for their 29 relatives killed by Israeli forces. Salah Sammouni told us that Israeli soldiers had evicted them from their home, which they then used as a military base, and told them to stay in their relatives’ house across the road, only to bomb it the following day.

Some died on the spot, they said, while others were left to die, as the Israeli army did not allow the ambulances to approach the house to evacuate the wounded for several days.

We then visited the Qishqu and al-Daya families whose homes were both destroyed by Israeli bombardments. ‘Abdallah Qishqu, whose house was destroyed by an Israeli air strike on 28 December, told us that his wife, who was seriously injured in the attack, still does not know that their eight-year-old daughter, Ibtihal, was killed in the explosion together with their daughter-in-law, Maisa.

At the Shifa hospital, Gaza’s main hospital, the head of the Burns Unit told us that when the first patients with phosphorus burns were brought in, doctors in the Burns Unit did not realise what had caused the injuries.

“The first thing we noticed were cases with orange burns, different from the burns we are used to dealing with. They started with patches and after a while they would become deeper with an offensive odour and after several hours smoke started coming from the wound,” the doctor said.

“We had a child of three years with a head injury. After three hours we changed the dressing and saw smoke coming out of the wound. We opened the wound and brought out this wedge. We had not seen it before. Later on, some colleagues, doctors from Egypt and Norway, were able to enter Gaza and told us that this was white phosphorus.

“We noticed various things about this: the burn does not heal; the phosphorus may remain inside the body and goes on burning there, and the general condition of the patient deteriorates – normally with 10-15% burns, you would expect a cure, now many such patients die,” he said.

Other doctors from the hospital said they had seen patients with strange injuries that appeared to have been caused by unusual weapons (there is speculation that this may include Deep Inert Metal Explosive – DIME weapons) and which they did not know how to deal with. Patients who should be getting better were getting worse.

AI Gains Access to Gaza

After weeks of Israeli and Egyptian restrictions, AI finally entered Gaza this past weekend to survey the damages caused by three weeks of Israeli strikes. But because of persistent denials by Israel to let human rights monitors enter, the AI mission was forced to enter through the border crossing of Rafah, a town that was extensively bombed in the recent air strikes. The team entered just hours before Israel’s ceasefire and then traveled via road to Gaza city. In a blog entry posted about the experience, they observed:

We saw many buildings reduced to rubble. Some had been directly targeted; others destroyed or damaged when nearby buildings were bombed. In several places, the outer walls of buildings had been blown off

We found evidence of widespread use of white phosphorus by the Israeli army in densely populated areas in and around Gaza City. In an alleyway in Gaza City, we saw barefooted children running around lumps of still smouldering phosphorus. We found more on the roof of a family’s house and still more on a busy street

In the Zaitoun neighbourhood of Gaza City, rescue workers were pulling out the bodies of members of the Sammuni family from the rubble of their home. They had been killed in Israeli strikes two weeks earlier and Israeli soldiers had subsequently bulldozed the house on top of them

One picture–left behind from an Israeli soldier–had the following words scribed on it: “1 down, 999,999 to go.

Meanwhile as US headlines drift away from the conflict in Gaza, leading European publications are running stories about how the attack on Gaza was perhaps worse than we thought. The BBC reports, that 1300 Palestinians have been killed, 4,000 buildings destroyed, 20,000 severely damaged, 50,000 live in UN shelters. In addition, 13 Israelis were killed.

But some, like Eva Bartlett of the International Solidarity Movement, find little reason to celebrate the ceasefire: “Today was the first day that medics and journalists were able to reach areas occupied by the invading Israeli troops. For some the anguish is immense: pulverised homes, killed family members, corpses unretrieved, sanctimony and all that is sacred defiled. For others, the suffering is in the tragedy of shattered dreams, of every personal item destroyed or lost. While the bombs may have stopped, for now, the terror remains. F-16s still flew low, terrifyingly low, today, so loud, so unpredictable. No one here has any reason to believe any words Israeli leaders proclaim. Only reason to believe in the worst.”